We’re already on the fourth instalment of my NI Digital Experts interview series. If you haven’t yet read the previous interviews with Emma Gribben, Niamh Taylor, and Gareth Dunlop, you really should – they’re all awesome people with great digital skills.
This week’s interview is with a dear friend of mine: Derek Johnson. Years ago Derek and I first started talking online – I think it was via twitter – when we discovered we had a lot of views and opinions in common about science, religion, and the role of rationality in modern society.
As I got to know Derek better, I realised he wasn’t just another opinionated ranter (like myself) – he’s also a damn good web developer. In fact, Derek is the best front-end developer I know. He is fiercely passionate about the web, and has strong opinions about what makes for good web development.
When it comes to the user-facing web, there’s no person who’s perspective I trust more than Derek. Let’s hear about him and his views:
Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover the internet, and how you became so involved with it?
I was working as a forester in Scotland, having barely touched a computer since playing a Spectrum 48k when I was wee. It was awesome work but pay was low and tax breaks for landowners were ending, so I needed a way out.
It seemed to me that people who knew how to use a computer were making plenty of money, so I enrolled on a computing course at a local college.
It was all excruciatingly boring. My mind wasn’t easily numbed at the time but I was lobotomised by this stuff. Writing C++ programs that did nothing in particular, farting about in Office applications, moving files around with a CLI and looking at motherboards.
One class was captivating. I made real stuff. Information connected by links. I’ll never forget the first time I clicked a link I created. It was literal magic to me.
We used FrontPage, and it wasn’t long before somebody game me a pirate copy of Dreamweaver 3. It frustrated me for 5 minutes until I found the code editor and I never looked back.
I was skint and didn’t finish the course so went back to forestry and begged my boss to let me build him a website. He relented, paid me £70 on top of my wages and I felt like a millionaire.
It would be another 8 years of working crappy day jobs and staying up late to hone my skills doing cheap freelance sites before I got my first full time web job. It was worth every second.
Back when we were growing up, there wasn’t any sort of formal education in to digital technologies outside of computer science. If you could go back, what would you choose to study at university, or would you skip university altogether?
I checked, and back when we were growing up a 10 megabyte hard drive cost about $1,000. Even when we had finished growing and were moving out of home a gigabyte cost about the same.
So yeah, the closest I came to digital technology was Manic Miner on the Spectrum.
I don’t have a degree, and if I could go back I wouldn’t do anything to change where my life is now. I’m content, in love and loved.
You are without a doubt one of the smartest and most passionate front-end developers I know. Why did you choose this particular field?
Ha thanks, but you need to meet more front-end developers.
First of all nobody would ever pay me to be a designer. My designs are to quality what crystal meth is to dental hygiene.
Another early option was back-end development. The first book I ever bought about building websites was ‘Build Your Own Database Driven Website with PHP and MySQL’ by Kevin Yank.
It was at my first proper web job at Website NI, where I did a bit of everything, that I realised front-end was for me.
I learnt how semantics implies the purpose and meaning of web content to people and machines, I learnt how accessibility improves the lives of people, I learnt how performance brings the web to people where the internet struggles, I learnt how responsive web design put the web in people’s pockets, on their TVs and consoles, and I learnt how progressive enhancement means we can, among other things, put the web on feature phones.
The thread running through all that is broadening access to the web.
The best moment of my career was seeing Sir Tim Berners-Lee in the London 2012 opening ceremony tweeting “This is for everyone”.
You don’t need to be in the developed world, you don’t need an iPhone, you don’t need fibre broadband, you don’t need to be physically fit. All you need is an internet connection and you have the web.
The web is also for everyone to publish to. It’s almost as easy to write content that appears on the web as it is to read it. Some people bemoan the fact idiots with opinions now share those opinions, but it’s the web’s best feature!
Before the web only the few, the self-declared intelligentsia, could broadcast their thoughts. Sure, you have to take a lot of what you read on the web addito salis grano but it has democratised the world, given voice to the forgotten and empowered the oppressed.
Unfortunately there are worse than the idiots on the web too. There are those who use the web to amplify their penchant for promoting violence and doing harm, especially against women. Their actions are reasons not to restrict the web but to do a better job of enforcing the laws we have against that, and to pressure the platforms (looking at you, twitter) that allow harassment while they wring their hands.
Finally the web is for everyone in that it is literally ours. It was never patented, it belongs to all of us.
Front-end developers are uniquely placed to maintain and expand this broad access.
We do most of what makes websites faster and lighter so people can do what they need to do then get on with their lives.
We do what it takes to deliver a website to a feature phone in a place where the internet is slow and expensive.
We write the code that means people with disabilities and impairments can use the web.
We do all that at the same time as delivering a cutting edge, feature rich experience to expensive modern devices that can handle it, and all at the same URL.
We do everything we can to give anyone who wants it, access to the websites we build.
That’s why I’m a front-end web developer.
You came to the digital industry relatively late in your life compared to many developers who started coding when they were in their teens. Do you feel that your late embrace of the web has helped or hindered you? Does it give you a different perspective on your job compared to developers that began at a younger age?
I’m pretty sure it hasn’t helped or hindered. I made my first website when the web was about 11 years old, and lots of people of all ages were doing the same.
It has become too easy to build a website with the solidity progressive enhancement naturally brings usurped by fragility for the sake of developer convenience and the chance to go full buzzword by calling it an app.
This can very easily lead to exclusion, harm diversity and ultimately betray a lack of empathy for web users.
Forgive the jargon, but for any developers who have strayed into the badlands of an SEO blog, it’s entirely possible—nay preferable—to load machine readable markup from the server, style it, and maintain UI state in the browser without excluding anyone.
There are plenty of outstanding young developers who broadly share my values though. The web for everyone is alive and safe in their hands.
I know you to be incredibly passionate about the web. What do you think needs to be done to help embed front-end best practices, to shape the norms and improve the quality of websites in Northern Ireland?
The implication is websites produced in Northern Ireland need improved, and I agree. In fact I would say the agencies that produce almost all of them operate a broken model.
Too many agencies do a terrible job of communicating the benefits of broad access to clients. It’s as if lots of people using your website is a bad thing. They pay lip service to it, but go ahead and sell cheap, pointless websites anyway.
When a website is cheap there is no room for the things that create success. Everything good is removed at the expense of bad design and silly functionality.
Design is appreciated at a visual level, back-end developers are something they wish they didn’t have to pay for but are stuck with, like printer ink. Front-end developers are perceived as an unnecessary luxury.
Then there’s Photoshop. Photoshop is not a web design tool. It’s as much use in web design as a caravan in a tank battle. Getting sign-off on a series of pictures that look pretty does not produce successful websites. That is a provable fact.
Websites are products. Organisations spend money on them to help achieve their goals. They must be designed as such. One would expect the agencies producing them to be experts, but they are usually led by people who have no clue about how to create success on the web.
They only really care about the success of their own businesses, not their clients’ businesses.
This means a lot of agencies are in a perpetual race to the bottom, always competing on price instead of quality, always looking for the sale instead of the value.
The best designers and developers are leaving agencies here to do freelance or remote work for companies outside Northern Ireland who put users first, value design, understand the web, demand modern development, and know they will provide a return on investment.
Too many of our agencies are led by wannabe business kings who read the local biz supplements instead of A List Apart or Smashing Magazine or Boagworld or Baymard. Then they go on LinkedIn and use the same language as their latest hedge fund pin-up in the hope it will create enough self-delusion to make a difference.
Not all, I hasten to add. Eyekiller is a fantastic agency in Bangor that focuses on users. The team there are super talented and Jamie (the boss) is sound as a pound.
Fathom are also doing interesting work designing user experiences, we need more like them.
I’m aware I haven’t answered your question yet, I’ll do so now.
There’s a delusion abroad that websites are designed by passing pictures around to the soundtrack of drivel masquerading as deliberation until somebody picks the one they like the best. Obvious nonsense.
The correct way to design a website is to start by being crystal clear about what it is for. What must it do for your organisation? What must the people who use it be able to do? What problems must it solve?
The design that answers those questions grows from sketches, wireframes, prototypes, usability tests, iteration and refinement feeding into each other. This is design.
From the first meeting to launch both the agency and the client must focus on those questions, and assess everything against them.
No matter how much work a developer puts into a feature, no matter how much a designer likes it or a client wants it, if it doesn’t help answer those crucial questions it must not be part of the website.
I have been involved in several projects using a modern, logical process, and it works.
Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office?
My wife and I are parents to four children. This question doesn’t make sense. [Ed: that made me laugh.]
Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience.
Something like Star Rover that tells you what you’re looking at in the night sky when you point your camera above the horizon.
It’s healthy to change the scale from the everyday, the human-understandable, to the galactic, even the infinite.
It’s healthier again to feel as minuscule and insignificant as a bacterium on an alga in the ocean, because that’s what you are.
About Derek Johnson